Longtime Unocal workers losing retirement benefits

Forgotten employees

Posted: Sunday, September 03, 2000

Ken Cissell said he has worked nearly 22 years for Unocal, and he always hoped the company would do him right.

But now, Unocal is selling its agricultural products business, including the Alaska Nitrogen Products fertilizer plant in Nikiski. Cissell and maybe dozens of others stand to lose retirement medical benefits they worked decades to earn.

"I have a hard time swallowing that," said Cissell, 48, an operator at ANP. "To me, the retirement medical benefits are one reason I wanted to work for Unocal."

He said workers should be able to count on the benefits Unocal promised.

However, Unocal spokesperson Roxanne Sinz said there will be changes any time one company buys another.

"There are some pluses to what Agrium has to offer. Overall, their benefits are comparable," she said. "Unocal has always treated its employees fairly. When we looked for a potential buyer, we looked for a buyer that would hire at least 85 percent of the employees."

The proposed buyer, Calgary, Alberta-based Agrium Inc., agreed to that, she said.

Cissell said the Paper Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers International fought to save retirement medical benefits. Even so, Unocal has agreed to pay its share of retirement medical insurance premiums only for workers aged 50 or more when the Agrium deal closes. Younger workers must start over at Agrium, which bases its retirement medical contributions on years worked there.

"If you're 49, you don't have enough time to get back what you're losing," he said.

Sinz said Unocal contributes to retirement medical insurance based on time worked for Unocal, and pays the maximum of 80 percent for retirees with at least 20 years service. However, Unocal pays that benefit only to employees at least 50 years old when they leave the company. That applies whether an employee quits or Unocal sells a subsidiary, she said.

Cissell said he knows one 49-year-old woman who has worked 30 years for Unocal.

"The union argued for three days trying to get them to go by years of service, or to lower the cutoff age to 45," he said. "That would have covered most of the people in the plant."

Barry Lane, Los Angeles-based spokesperson for Unocal, said changing the cutoff age to 45 was never discussed during the sale negotiations.

Cissell said that arose during negotiations in Kenai.

"I know (PACE International representative) Dave Albright and others put up a heck of a fight," he said. "I know (one union negotiator) looked one of them in the eye and said, 'You mean this lady has 30 years of service, she's 49 years old, and you don't believe she deserves that benefit?' He said, 'Nope.'"

Cissell said the loss of the benefit is unfair.

"We're out there working hard, risking our necks, which we sometimes do, and we'll do again," said Cissell, whose crew was working last year when an explosion blew a 120,000-gallon storage tank off its pad. "We try to break production records. Then, they tell you you're not going to get those benefits. You're out of luck. There's people all over the plant at between age 44 and age 50. I don't think it's right."

Agrium normally pays 60 percent of retirement medical insurance premiums for employees who retire with 15 years of service, said Mike Klein, vice president for human resources. It adds for additional service and pays 100 percent for those with 35 years at Agrium.

After the purchase, he said, Agrium will count years with Unocal toward the 15 years of service required to qualify for Agrium retirement medical benefits. But when Agrium actually calculates its contribution, it will count only years with Agrium. For the acquired workers, it will pay 4 percent of retirement medical insurance premiums for each year worked at Agrium, but nothing for years worked at Unocal.

Rodney Reynolds, 49, has worked at ANP for 26 years and earned the 80 percent retirement medical benefit from Unocal. But he will lose that if the sale closes before his birthday.

"Say I work five years for Agrium," he said. "Instead of the 80-20 split for medical, Agrium will give me 20 percent. It's kind of a bum deal."

He would have to work another 20 years after the sale before Agrium would pay 80 percent. He said it will be difficult for workers aged 45 to 49 to recover what they lose.

"There's people that have been there 15 or 20 years, and they're right in that age bracket," he said. "There's probably 50 people in that age group."

Sinz declined to say how many ANP workers are between 45 and 49.

Klein said it is unfortunate that some affected workers will not qualify for Unocal retirement medical benefits.

"That's not because Agrium denies employees for benefits, but because Unocal did not extend them," he said.

The late David Worman was Kenai branch president for PACE International. Before his death in June, he said Unocal is using the sale to reduce its contribution to retirement medical benefits substantially, and Agrium's package is inadequate.

"We've rolled this over and over in our heads," he said May 30. "We sat with Unocal officials in Los Angeles for a day and a half. They're really determined to do this and put the boot to employees that are being rolled over to Agrium."

Bob Johnston, PACE International representative in Richland, Wash., declined to comment, referred a reporter to PACE International president Randy Knowles or Dave Albright of the Kenai branch, and hung up. Knowles left a message that PACE International has no comment. Albright did not return calls to PACE International's Kenai office. Bill Bryant, who replaced Worman, declined to comment.

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